Rohingya youth Zafar Ahmad bin Abdul Ghani was on the run since the Burmese military junta seized power through a coup d’état in late 1988.
After months of hiding from military oppression on Rohingya Muslims — killing, looting and land grabbing — in the western Rakhine state of Buddhist-dominant Myanmar, Zafar and others fled to Bangladesh and then to India.
Failing to make a decent living, he decided to go to Malaysia that had held better prospects. Finally, he found a way — a boat journey through the Indian Ocean against a hefty pay to the agents. After two weeks of perilous journey, they landed in Thailand coast only to be arrested and sent to the detention centre.
“When we explained to Thai police our persecutions in Burma, we were released only to be handed over to other boat agents,” Zafar who has been living in Malaysia since 1992 told The Daily Star over the phone.
To cross into Malaysia, he had to pay the agents $300 that he had collected from his relatives staying in Thailand.
“I was lucky to be able to pay. I never knew the fate of others who could not,” said Zafar.
He is one of the thousands of Rohingya men and women, who have been fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China to escape persecutions in Myanmar.
While some could manage fake passports of other countries like Bangladesh to move to third countries such as Saudi Arabia, a large number of them took the dangerous sea journeys.
The trend began in the 1990s as the military juntas continued to rule the country, imposing discriminatory regulations on the Rohingyas who are estimated to be 1.1 million, mostly in Rakhine.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the Rohingyas were not formally recognised as Burmese national group after the country’s independence in 1948. The 1982 Citizenship Law too denied them citizenship.
They are subject to various exploitations including forced labour, extortion, restrictions on movement, denial of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations, and land confiscation.
Amid military oppression, some 5 lakh Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh — first in 1978 and then in 1991-92. Presently, around 32,000 refugees stay in the UNHCR-run camps in Bangladesh, while an estimated 5 lakh live outside the camps.
According to the UNHCR, some 1.4 lakh Rohingyas live in Malaysia and 1.32 lakh in Thailand, but the unofficial figure could be much higher.
Under the present reformist government formed in 2011, Myanmar saw the worst sectarian violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and 1.4 lakh homeless, mostly Rohingyas in Rakhine province. Already grappling with the refugees, Bangladesh this time closed its door to new Rohingya influx.
Transnational human trafficking gangs, meanwhile, are cashing in on the growing desperation of the Rohingya people subjected to violence by the Buddhist mobs.
The UNHCR says from June 2012 to June 2014, some 87,000 people have departed by sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar border.
On reaching Thailand by cargo ships, each Rohingya is asked to pay a ransom worth $1500-2000 [Tk 1.2 lakh to 1.6 lakh] before being pushed into Malaysia, it said.
“In remote jungle camps in Thailand, transnational criminal networks are beating and torturing their captives in an attempt to extract ransom payments from their families and friends,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Thailand-based rights group Fortify Rights, in an email interview to The Daily Star.
Those failing to pay ransom are sold to the fishing industry as slave labour or forced to work in the jungle camps, international media reported.
Exhumation of 26 bodies from the mass graves in such jungle camps in Thailand’s Sadao district last week comes as yet another testimony to the horrific conditions the trafficking victims face and how many of them end up dying there.
These deaths are in addition to those killed during the sea journeys where they were either starved to death or being dumped or shot by the traffickers.
The UNHCR said that last year alone, over 200 people may have died along the route beginning at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
In some cases, Matthew Smith said, Thai authorities have been complicit in human trafficking, selling detainees to criminal syndicates, who then bring them to traffickers’ camps.
Even after crossing into Malaysia, the Rohingya men, women and children are held captive in holding houses in Penang and other northern states until ransom is paid.
“If the ransom is not paid, the person is then further trafficked or killed,” a human rights activist in Penang told this correspondent, requesting anonymity.
Zafar said that soon after they reached Malaysia sometime in 1992, he and some other Rohingyas were arrested and put in jail. Released after four months, he was handed over to the “agents” in Thai bordering areas of Kelantan, northeastern state of Malaysia, only to be extorted twice.
Eventually, he reached Kuala Lumpur and got registered with the UNHCR after months of efforts, but that was of no use as Malaysia neither has refugee camps nor provides aid to the refugees.
With no passport or legal job document, life in Malaysia has always been difficult and humiliating for him. He was arrested a dozen times there.
“I sometimes work in construction, but the pay is very low. I have a wife and three children to look after, but I can’t do much for them,” said Zafar.
“I have no state, no security of life. I feel very sad, frustrated. Often I cry and have sleepless nights,” he went on.
His tale sums up the plight thousands of stateless Rohingyas go through.
Rasheduzzaman, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said the reformist government of Myanmar was said to be democratic, but there were no signs that its policy on the Rohingya would see a change in the near future.
Even the opposition democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been kept under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, is silent on it. It means the humanitarian crisis that the world sees today on the Rohingya issue may continue, he said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the international community, however, can surely play a proactive role in the process, he said.